Currently Reading: You’re Next, by Kylie Schachte
Exciting Adaptation News
Quick note before we dig in… one of my favourite trans-affirming graphic novels, The Prince and the Dressmaker, which I’ve featured on the blog in the past, is getting a movie musical adaptation, and I’m hyped.
Who are the storytellers?
If you are on Twitter at all (and you probably are, if you’re reading this blog), it would have been difficult to miss the drama surrounding the CW story that was released and then wrenched from the internet earlier this year. It raised a lot of important questions that the literary world has yet to reckon with about who has the right to tell what stories, how, and what that means… but also what an online readership has the right to demand of an author, particularly one that is relatively unknown, and marginalized.
We see these issues raised again with American Dirt. My Dark Vanessa. Tamsyn Muir’s fanfiction. These questions aren’t going away.
The story raised more issues than just those that were obvious, however, particularly for those who are embedded in the literary and trans communities. When I read Morgan Swim‘s January 12th thread, I asked if they would be willing to collaborate with me to transform it into an essay, and that I could publish in this space. They graciously obliged. Below is the resulting essay, on constructing non-binary gender as an author in a Very Online™️ world, by Morgan Swim.
Gender and Representation in Trans Storytelling
Before I get started let me clarify: This is about the CW story, but it is not in response to it. What I mean is, it’s made me think very deeply about my own shit, why that’s my own shit, and if I want it to keep being my shit. Genderwise.
Here’s the gist of it: Who gets to decide what is and isn’t good trans representation is a lot more complicated than I thought it was. The simple answer I thought was: trans people. (By trans people I mean anyone who identifies as transgender, non-binary, genderqueer and gender non-conforming in any combination.) And that’s true, but I’m a trans people and I cannot decide what is good trans rep for anyone but myself.
This isn’t just about trying to understand my personal metric for being able to decide the difference between a story I don’t like and a story that is transphobic. This is about me realizing that this discussion, this constant judging and weighing of individual pieces of content, IS my gender.
I identify as non-binary. It’s taken me a while to get to that signifier, but it’s comfortable, and seems to be where I’m gonna stay. Up until the CW story, I thought that “being non-binary” meant that I believed myself to be outside the bounds of western-white-people binary gender.
That means I end up mixing a lot of masculine and feminine shit, and enjoy confusing cis people. But, I realized that somehow, my brain was filtering that to mean “I have no gender.” But I do! It’s non-binary! If I didn’t have a gender, I would probably identify as agender. So, why… don’t I?
I realized that my gender is the constant dialogue I’m having with myself about what gender even is, and if that’s good or not. Instead of stripping myself of WOMAN pieces and MAN pieces, I was inspecting each element and putting it in a KEEP or TOSS bin. I was doing this without being consciously aware of it, even when I am constantly discussing with myself that I don’t do this!
In a very real sense, my gender is other people. What I mean by this is that my gender is not a set of physical characteristics, behaviors, or beliefs that can be defined independently. For example, I enjoy presenting as feminine in groups where my gender and pronouns are known, respected, and affirmed regardless of my appearance. In a space where my gender is known but perhaps not affirmed or clumsily respected, I will present gender neutral or even masculine. Yet in spaces where my gender is unknown, I often revert remain closeted regardless of how feminine or masculine I appear. Why am I doing this? It’s because my gender presentation needs to do more work to achieve the same level of internal equilibrium I need to feel comfortable about myself. How people view me and treat me does change that. It changes how I want to be perceived.
I think a lot of trans people may read that and think, ah, you’re managing your dysphoria, and I guess yeah, I am, but even so it’s still not that simple. Because sometimes, as relationships with (cis and trans) people deepen, I enjoy purposefully flipping my gender presentation and behavior. I do this even if will lead to being misgendered, even if it will cause my cis friends to be confused or question me. Even if it puts me at risk of harm.
I think what I’m really interested most of all is observing how people change when others change. By moving through gender as a dialogue with another, I often cause appearance and behavior shifts in others without intending. I see people tense into strict gender roles as often as I see them sigh in relief as they drop their performance of them. My gender is that dialogue between me and another, both spoken and in the constant adjustments to my appearance, my word choices, body language, etc.
How does that dialogue change in publishing? Well it’s harder, I think. Being a trans author in SFF is a fucking gauntlet. And I don’t have other intersectional identities to consider!
I can’t claim a gender that doesn’t belong to my culture or race, and I’m constantly running fidelity tests against what I think of as MAN and WOMAN, which are incredibly specific to race, culture, your relationship to your body, how other people view you, and how you want to be viewed.
Back to SFF. I freaked out about the CW story for a lot of reasons, some of them valid, some of them selfish, and when the dust settled, I realized that a very big part of me had been reacting out of fear of my own experiences of gender.
There’s a novella I’ve been working on for almost three years now. Here’s the basic premise:
There is a robot, and she is a woman. She is aware she performs the gender “woman”, and she uses it to engage with her desire to be a man. She uses gendered actions, appearances, and sex to surround herself constantly with men to live vicariously through them. Spoiler: the robot is a trans man.
Based on that premise alone, is that good rep? Here’s another take on it:
There are two robots. They share the same memory core, but never at the same time. One presents as a woman. One presents as a man. One day, they meet and fall in love. In the end, they realize they are the same person and live happily ever after.
Is that good rep?? Here’s another take:
There is a human. They are non-binary. They build a robot and download all of their messy, traumatic experiences with gender, and put it into the robot. The robot is now miserable, and begins to harm itself. A human trans woman finds the robot and helps it to understand itself, and it works through its trauma. They start dating.
Is this good rep?? The answer to this is, I don’t fucking know, and it’s why I haven’t finished the damn thing.
But here’s the thing – all those scenarios are the same story. All those scenarios are how I experience my own gender when I think nobody is watching. And I’m afraid to write it authentically because I’m afraid of myself as much as I’m afraid of someone reading it and saying that it’s bad trans rep.
And that fear isn’t from a fear of being called out. Authors and agents of transphobic stories, written by trans people or not, need to be held accountable. Editors and publishers who publish harmful stories need to be held accountable. Racism, ableism, and other forms of oppression, even in “good trans rep”, need to be called out.
It’s obvious they need to be critiqued, because they harm trans people. They harmed me, a trans people! I had a fucking mental breakdown about it, and wrote a 1000 fucking word twitter thread about it! I never engage in this shit publically! I’m too afraid to!
The question I guess I need to ask of myself, and of my community, is: How do we balance the very real need to protect ourselves from bad faith content, and make space for trans voices in publishing, while holding space for authentic, good faith content that is difficult to engage in, difficult to write, and difficult to even identify?
How do we protect the trans people that are harmed by stories by other trans people? How do we discuss it without causing more harm and fragmenting the community?
I don’t know the answer to this, but I think that we need to start thinking about how we, as a community, can work together when these sorts of incidents occur.
I do not know who the CW author is, but the discussion around “is it a closeted trans person or not” is deeply uncomfortable. And still, it needs to be discussed.
It sucks! It sucks that it needs to be discussed, because it causes us harm, but it does matter. We need to be able to make space to discuss harmful shit to know how to deal with it next time and progress as a community.
I think a lot of the answers trans people have are in the right direction: more trans people writing and editing stories, more venues for trans people to be published, normalization of narratives that are don’t cater to cis and cisnormative audiences.
There should at the least have been some fucking content warnings on that thing. It’s sort of morbidly funny to me that it’s being referred to as “the CW story”.
At the end of the very emotional weekend following the release and subsequent blowup around the CW story, the thing that consoled me the most was (surprise!) other trans people. After I had rammed my head through every possibility and logic loop I could, I just went and read shit by trans people I love! I spent all day drawing fan art for a friend while we discussed the story and our feelings about it.
I can’t tell you, other trans people reading this, how you should feel about the CW story, or about my thoughts on it. But I want to see this harder shit discussed when you’re able, when you have the strength to consider.
I see my gender differently after the CW story was published. I didn’t realize how much of my identity was wrapped up in community politics and other people’s beliefs. I didn’t realize what a double-edged blade that is, but now I think I’m starting to wield it with more purpose. Now I can engage in conversation with my gender consciously, and find it a little easier to read and examine trans narratives that are uncomfortable or painful for me because now I can hold them up and know I don’t have to change myself in response if I don’t want to. I can choose who gets to have those conversations with me and who has the power to influence my gender. I don’t want my gender to be the constant internal dialogue I have with myself about my behavior, my appearance, and if I’m churning out good rep. I want to talk about these things with other trans people. I don’t want to be afraid of my community anymore. I want to know the hard stuff other trans people are dealing with and feeling, even if it’s uncomfortable for me. I’m gonna chose to do that.
I want to have difficult, nuanced discussions together. I want to sit in that discomfort with people who are newly trans, who are from older generations that I don’t relate to. I want to get so strong and capable that I can keep helping. I want this shit to be fucking laughable. I want us to make so much progress, we can’t even remember a day when we had to have these discussions. I don’t care if it’s possible, that’s what I want.
Anyway… that’s my fucking gender.
If you enjoyed Morgan Swim’s essay, consider checking out their newest self-published fantasy f/f short story on Gumroad!
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